06 December 2011

Prayer in the Monastic Way

The call to prayer ... the monastery bells in Vlatádon in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

7.30 p.m., 6 December 2011:

‘Prayer in the Monastic Way’

Opening Music

Let us first hear a call to worship that begins with the sounding of the semandron or long wooden bar and the monastic bells calling people to prayer.

Christian life and monastic prayer

The Christian life and the monastic life are both lives of prayer – seeking and finding God, and allowing ourselves to be found by God. So then, monastic life is essentially a life of prayer.

The Psalmist says:

Seven times a day I praise you
for your righteous ordinances (Psalm 119: 164).

The Acts of the Apostles tell us that the Apostles met together in the upper room in Jerusalem, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1: 14) – some translations say “continuous prayer.” Peter and John visit the Temple for the afternoon prayers (see Acts 3: 1).

In the Church of Ireland lectionary reading for this morning, the Apostle Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5: 17). The Didache, the oldest known liturgical manual, recommended praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.

This idea of continuous or ceaseless prayer in the Apostolic and Early Church profound influenced the first monks. Saint John Cassian describes how they went off to practise “those things which they had learned to have been ordered by the Apostles throughout the body of the Church in general.”

In the beginning, the Egyptian monks spent the day and much of the night in uninterrupted prayer, combing this life of prayer with simple manual labour in their cells.

With Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun in the Western Desert in Egypt

Because the continuous prayer of the hermits in the Egyptian Desert was beyond many, the practice developed of fixing certain times for prayer in the day and night for prayer. These times were not meant to free the monks from praying continuously, but they were an aid to fulfilling this obligation.

As monasticism spread, the practice of specified hours and liturgical forms began to develop and become standardised. By the second and third centuries, Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian wrote of the practice of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and of the prayers at terce, sext, and none, individually or in groups.

By the third century, the Desert Fathers began to live out the advice from the Apostle Paul to pray without ceasing, with one group of monks praying one fixed-hour prayer, followed by another group praying the next prayer.

The monastic tradition continues ... Father Irenaeus, a monk in the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi Natrun, shows the crypt of Saint John the Baptist below the northern wall of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Among the monastic communities, in the East and West, prayers soon grew longer, but the cycle of prayer became the norm in daily life in monasteries. By the fourth century, the canonical hours seem to take their present shape.

Saint Pachomios (292-348) is generally recognised as the founder of cenobitic monasticism – in which monks lived a shared common life rather than as hermits. His followers especially developed this practice of set times for prayer during the day and night. Since they lived in community, they met together for this communal prayer at fixed times.

Because of its communal nature, this form of monastic prayer needed some ordering and arrangement of the psalms and readings. But both hermits, who prayed alone, and cenobites, who prayed together, stressed the quality of the prayer rather than on the quantity. They considered it better to pray with understanding and attention than to recite many psalms with a wandering mind.

Monastic prayer and the Rule of Benedict

Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor, Co Down

Saint Benedict of Nursia wrote the first official western manual for praying the Hours in the year 525. By the ninth century, the canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events and three or four nightly divisions, called nocturns, watches, or vigils, built around reading the Psalms, Canticles and Scriptures.

In his Rule, Saint Benedict modelled his guidelines for monastic prayer on the customs in the basilicas in Rome. Benedictine spirituality approaches life through an ordering by daily prayer that is biblical and reflective. At its base, Benedictine spirituality is grounded in a commitment to “the Benedictine Promise” – an approach to spiritual life that values “Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life.”

In the Rule of Saint Benedict, the major themes are community, prayer, hospitality, study, work, humility, stability, peace and listening.

The Benedictine motto is: “Ora et Labora.” This does not present prayer and work as two distinct things, but holds prayer and work together. The chapel becomes the place for the Work of God (Opus Dei), but the work of God does not end at the chapel door. God continues to work where we work. The monastic cell is the place of solitude, but this is not a refuge from the common life. There must be time and place for both, a unity of the inner life and the outer life.

For Saint Benedict, the spiritual life and the physical life are inseparable. As he says: Orare est laborare, laborare est orare, “To pray is to work, to work is to pray.”

These fixed-hour prayers came to be known as the Divine Office – and remember that the word office comes from the Latin word for work: the Benedictines called the prayers the Opus Dei or Work of God.

Stained glass windows in the Franciscan chapel in Gormanston College, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In time, the Divine Office became more elaborate, requiring various books, such as a Psalter, lectionary, Bible, hymnal, and so on. The Franciscans wanted a one-volume breviary for the friars to take with them on their travels, and this breviary soon spread throughout Europe, and evolved.

In the West, the modern Liturgy of the Hours focuses on three major hours and from two to four minor hours:

Invitatory: not an hour properly, but the introduction to the day, with either the Office of Readings or Morning Prayer.
The Office of Readings: formerly Matins, a major hour.
Morning Prayer: or Lauds, a major hour.
Daytime Prayer: which may be one or all of mid-morning prayer (Terce), mid-day prayer (Sext) and mid-afternoon prayer (None).
Evening Prayer: Vespers, a major hour.
Night Prayer: Compline.

The major hours consist of the Office of Readings (Matins), Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers).

The Office of Readings consists of: a hymn, one or two psalms, often divided into three parts; a scripture reading; a reading from the life of a saint or martyr or a theological work or commentary; sometimes canticles and hymns; a concluding prayer and a short concluding verse.

Morning Prayer is marked by praise, Evening Prayer by thanksgiving. Night prayer has the character of preparing the soul for its passage to eternal life.

Personal prayer and monastic prayer in the Rule of Benedict

Jesus College Cambridge was founded in 1496 on the site of the 12th century Benedictine Priory of Saint Radegund (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Benedictine spirituality teaches us that prayer is not a matter of mood. To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make God a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled.

Prayer is not about making God a getaway from life. Prayer is meant to call us back to a consciousness of God here and now. The Benedictine theologian and writer Sister Joan Chittister explains, in Benedictine Prayer: A Larger Vision of Life, that “Benedictine prayer is not designed to take people out of the world to find God. Benedictine prayer is designed to enable people to realise that God is in the world around them.”

She says: “Benedictine prayer … takes us out of ourselves to form in us a larger vision of life than we ourselves can ever dredge up out of our own lives alone. Benedictine prayer puts us in contact with past and future at once so that the present becomes clearer and the future possible.”

We can be sure that Saint Benedict and the early monks understood that prayer is central in the life of a monk. But their concepts of prayer were quite different from those of later ages when different methods of prayer were developed.

Father Adalbert de Vogüé, who died recently[14 October 2011], writes in his commentary on the Rule: “The communal office finds its justification only in a clear understanding of its relationship to continual prayer. Those who limit their prayer to the hours must never forget that this is not an end but a means, not an ideal or a law descended from heaven, but a wise and humble human attempt to respond to the call of Christ and guard against human weakness. The only law, for the monk as well as for the Christian of the first centuries, was to pray without ceasing. The office is only a means to achieve this.”

Saint Benedict shared the concern of the cenobotic monks for quality rather than quantity when he wrote in his Rule: “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices” (Rule of Saint Benedict 19: 7).

Yet, on reading the Rule of Saint Benedict, it is surprising to find that he does not have one method of personal prayer. Although there are many instructions on the Divine Office or Opus Dei and the Liturgy of the Hours, Saint Benedict has little to say about personal prayer. He did not establish set times for personal prayer nor did he give detailed instructions on how to pray. Instead, what he gave instructions on how to live.

An icon of Saint Francis (left) and Saint Benedict (right) in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In his Rule, he maps out a lifestyle that takes it for granted that those who live by this Rule lead prayerful lives. In the prayer-filled and prayerful search for God, those who live the monastic life search in the set hours of the divine office for fresh opportunities to turn afresh to God.

The Office or Opus Dei is not one activity among many in the monastic day: it is a particular mode of the unique activity that dominates the lives of those who live it – their search for God through a life of continual prayer.

Esther de Waal puts it this way: “Prayer lies at the heart of Benedictine life; it holds everything together; it sustains every other activity. It is at the same time root and fruit, foundation and fulfilment” (Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p. 145).

At first sight, Chapter 20 of the Rule, “On Reverence at Prayer,” may appear to deal with prayer made in private outside the office. But, in fact, it is treating of prayer within the liturgy.

This distinction between liturgical prayer and private prayer, which is familiar to modern spirituality, was unknown to the early monks. Apart from one short reference to prayer outside the office, Chapter 20 of the Rule is concerned with the silent prayer that is a response to the psalm. Listening to the word of God was a necessary prelude to every prayer, and prayer was the natural response to every psalm.

Prayer is not simply an exercise slotted somewhere into the monastic day; it is a life. Prayer grows out of life and embraces the whole of life. It is the response of the human person to the touch of God in his or her life. So a modern reader who expects to find a method of prayer in the Rule of Saint Benedict is approaching it with preconceived ideas about prayer, and will not find one for the simple reason that we are looking for the wrong thing.

Saint Benedict’s approach is refreshingly simple and uncomplicated. For him, the key that opens the door to prayer is the quality of a Christian’s life, and the whole existence of a Christian is to seek to imitate Christ in fulfilling the will of his Father.

Saint Benedict’s insistence on obedience in the lives of his followers is not simply to promote the good ordering of community life. Rather, obedience assimilates them to Christ in his zeal for the Father’s will. Through obedience, they share in the kenosis or self-emptying of Christ.

Apart from the scripture readings that are heard in the liturgy, Saint Benedict sets aside from two to three hours a day for the practice of lectio divina. The reading of Scripture in lectio divina is not an intellectual pursuit of knowledge and information but a way to let the word of God penetrate the heart and the whole person, so that we listen and open our hearts to God who speaks to us in his word.

Lectio divina is a blend of listening, reflecting and responding to the word of God. But, of course, a listening heart is important for a life of prayer.

Saint Benedict begins his Rule with the word listen, ausculta: “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prologue 1). His advice is as short and succinct a directive on how to prepare to pray as I can find.

Early monks often memorised texts from scripture and would know the psalms and much of the New Testament by heart. At work and at other times they would recite these texts to themselves. This oral repetition was a kind of rumination on the word of God in a quiet way, so that the full flavour and meaning of the text is revealed to the heart. Prayer then is the response to this constant hearing of the word of God.

Saint Benedict wanted the minds and the hearts of his monks and nuns to be so filled with the divine word that their prayer would be coloured and conditioned by it. For Benedictines, lectio divina became one of the principal supports of prayer.


If listening is one of the basic attitudes of prayer, then watching is also a key if not fundamental attitude.

Watch and listen, listen and watch, watch and wait, watch and pray.

The Psalms are full of the idea of watching:

Psalm 123 is a particularly beautiful example of this.

As the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
until he has mercy upon us his mercy (Psalm 123: 2).

Much of the time in prayer is taken up with watching and waiting, waiting to respond to God’s word and to do whatever God asks us to do.

Watch and wait, wait and watch.

The idea of waiting is found throughout the Psalms:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard me cry (Psalm 39: 1).

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God (Psalm 42: 1).

As the deer pants for the water ... the base of the ‘Market Cross’ from the monastery in Kells, Co Meath, has two friezes, including a deer hunt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Listening, watching, waiting, yearning, longing, thirsting – this is what prayer consists of in the monastic tradition.

It does not involve complicated mental activities. Rather, it is a simple way of communicating with God.

But is this not the way we communicate with people who are close to us, with the people we love?

If so, surely then this should be way we communicate with God who lives in our hearts.

Words are totally inadequate when communicating with God. They are incapable of expressing the deep sentiments of the heart. Only simple but profound expressions of the heart like waiting, yearning and watching are able to sustain the depth and intensity of our silent, unspoken prayer.

Saint John Chrysostom teaches the same: “You should not think of prayer as being a matter of words. It is a desire for God, an indescribable devotion, not of human origin, but the gift of God’s grace” (Homily 6 on Prayer).

Newcomers to the monastic life can easily misinterpret the invitation to continual prayer. It does not mean that every moment is spent saying verbal prayers or trying to keep the mind and attention focussed continuously on some theme for meditation. Undoubtedly that would be a recipe for a breakdown. Instead, the state of continuous prayer is one of desire and deep longing for God within the normal course of daily living.

Some people may fall into the trap of being lyrical in speaking about prayer. But the reality is that praying is anything but lyrical. Most people meet with growing dissatisfaction and frustration when they come to prayer.

We all know and recognise, I am sure, the early period when prayer is easy and even exciting. But then it becomes boring and a task, and when we keep on trying to pray we feel we are getting nowhere.

There are distractions. The imagination runs riot. We are unable to concentrate for more than a few seconds. We find there is nothing to concentrate on. Prayer appears to have become impossible. This is a normal experience for many of us.

In this state, we find a prayer “method” does not help. Cardinal Basil Hume, writing about this state, notices how images or ideas seem to become obstacles, “and yet when we abandon these we find we still have no awareness of God. It is at this point that we are tempted to give up” (Basil Hume, Searching for God, p. 122).

The essential ingredients of monastic prayer include of watching, waiting, yearning, listening and desiring. But what if we are watching, waiting, yearning and listening, and the Lord does not seem to take any notice of us. We are waiting and yearning for him, and he does not seem to our longing, that we are conscious of the absence of God rather than God’s presence? That we are tempted to give up, discouraged? This is where the lessons we can learn from monastic prayer can help us and support us as we continue to wait, to watch and to listen?

Each of us is faced with the desert experience and the desert is neither a pleasant nor a comfortable place to be, for it is arid and unexciting, it is full of “hardships and difficulties.” But Saint Benedict says these will lead the monk to God (Rule of Saint Benedict, 58: 8).

The desert calls for patience, endurance, hope and desire. However painful, the desert experience brings home to us the truth that we of ourselves can do nothing – that I am totally dependent on God.

The Apostle Paul explains what is happening in this seemingly impossible situation when we want to pray and yet feel we are quite incapable of doing so: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8: 26).

The monastic tradition teaches us that prayer truly is the work of the Holy Spirit within us. All we can do is prepare ourselves to receive this gift by being open to the Holy Spirit and allowing the Holy Spirit to pray in us.

Perseverance at prayer demands strong faith and unshakeable hope.

When we find ourselves in this formless, wordless, imageless type of prayer, then, paradoxically, we find ourselves in simple contemplative prayer, what is sometimes called the prayer of faith, the prayer of simple regard, centring prayer, or prayer of the heart. It seeks no results, no productivity; for all the world, it may seem like a sheer waste of time. But it is then that the Holy Spirit is praying within us even though we may not be conscious of what the Holy Spirit is doing.

As the ancient monks used to say, we pray best when we do not know we are praying.

The sense of God’s all-embracing presence permeates the Rule of Benedict. He wanted his monks and nuns to live in this presence at all times and in all places. In Chapter 19 he says: “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked. But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (Rule of Benedict, 19: 1-2).

This mindfulness of God’s presence underlies the Opus Dei in a special way, as Saint Benedict indicates. But it also underpins every other activity of the monastic day. If the divine presence is to be a living reality and influence the lives of the monks and the nuns, it must be called to mind on a regular, frequent basis.

Saint Benedict knew we are prone to forget God, and so he provided for frequent reminders in the monastic life to refocus mindfulness of God.

Apart from the liturgical offices, Saint Benedict says:

● Meals should always begin and end with prayer (Rule of Benedict, 43).
● The kitchen servers are to ask for prayers and a blessing before and after their duties (Rule of Benedict, 35).
● So too with the reader in the refectory (Rule of Benedict, 38).
● Guests are to be welcomed with prayer (Rule of Benedict, 53).
● Every time a monk begins a good work, he is to ask God to bring it to perfection (Rule of Benedict, Prologue 4).

Saint Benedict’s concern to invite his followers to place themselves frequently in the divine presence shows how he appreciates our psychological need for stimuli to help us to refocus our attention on God.

Every moment of the day, every duty to be performed, every person I meet, is an opportunity to meet God, the God of my desire. “Ultimately, praying is living, working, loving, accepting, the refusal to take anything or anyone for granted, but rather to try to find Christ in and through them all” (Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p. 152).

In this sense, prayer is a kind of undercurrent at every moment of the day. It is a deep reaching out to the presence of God in all persons and in all things. And so, prayer does not interfere with the monk’s or the nun’s activities or thoughts.

Christ is at the centre of Saint Benedict’s spirituality. He would have his followers see Christ in the abbot (Rule of Benedict, 2:2), in their brothers and sisters in community, in the sick (Rule of Benedict, 36: 1), in the guests and the poor who come to the monastery (Rule of Benedict, 53:1).

Those who sincerely try to put this into practice cannot but develop a deep, on-going relationship with Christ. Life does not mean tearing ourselves away from other people in order to find Christ. Instead, it means seeing and loving and serving him in everyone whose life ouches me. Every encounter in my life becomes centred on Christ or Christocentric and so I am invited more and more into the heart of Christ and into his prayer to the Father. In this way, Christ prays my prayer of praise and love to the glory of his Father and our Father.

As monks and nuns progress in their monastic commitment, their prayer tends to become simpler, more in rhythm with the simple tenor of daily life. They use fewer words. The repetition of a few texts of scripture or even a single word is sufficient to put them in contact with God.

Yet, some modern methods of prayer make prayer so complicated that they almost put people off praying. But the reality of prayer could not be more simple, for it is being open to God’s presence at every moment of the day.

The Rule of Saint Benedict offers a balance and wholeness in the life of one who lives by it. Christ is met in every action and every moment in daily life. We can respond to the Christ they meet in so many different ways during the day in praise, in wonder, in gratitude, in love, in service.

Such a response is not merely on the intellectual level but on the level of the whole person. In this way, there is no false tension between God and the demands of daily life.

The search for God leads us to find him in all places and at all times, not just at the times specifically set aside for formal prayer. We find God, not by getting away from the people and situations we meet every day, but precisely in these people and in these situations. These are the very life and content of prayer, and prayer reflects and expresses life.

“Perhaps the best way of describing Saint Benedict’s way of prayer is to say that it is the natural outcome of a life dedicated to grace. He treats the subject with modesty and with brevity, and yet the whole content of the Benedictine life emanates from prayer, understood in its broadest sense, as relationship with God; a life lived in his presence in a growing, permeating consciousness of what that presence means” (Esther de Waal, Seeking God, p. 154).

Monastic prayer in the Orthodox tradition

The bells of the Monastery of Saint John on the island of Patmos

In the Orthodox Church, from the fourth century on, the Office develops in parallel with the development of monasticism. Palladius of Galatia tells us that the early hermits prayed the Psalms, sang hymns and recited prayers, often in combinations of twelve.

With the rise of cenobotic or community monasticism, the cycle of prayer became more fixed and complex, with different practices in different places.

Egeria, who visited the Holy Land as a pilgrim about 381-384, recorded the following about the Canonical Hours:

“But among all things it is a special feature that they arrange that suitable psalms and antiphons are said on every occasion, both those said by night, or in the morning, as well as those throughout the day, at the sixth hour, the ninth hour, or at lucernare, all being so appropriate and so reasonable as to bear on the matter in hand.”

By the early sixth century, the daily cycle of prayer in eastern monasteries was highly developed and complex, and it remains a living and continuously evolving expression of the timeless worship of the Church.

The monastic tradition today

The Monastery of Vatopédi (Βατοπέδι) on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mount Athos is the most important centre of monastic life in the Orthodox world today. There has been a recent revival in the fortunes of many of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with new monks arriving from Cyprus, Romania, Russia and Australia.

The mountain is loved among the Orthodox for nurturing great writers in spirituality and on the life of prayer. Three of the best known of these writers in the 20th century were Saint Silouan (1866-1938), his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993), founder of Saint John’s Monastery, which I visit each year, and Elder Joseph (died 1959).

Although some of these great writers also lived as hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.

The Monastery of Vlatádon in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In the Orthodox Church, the canonical hours the “Divine Services” are set out in the ῾Ωρολόγιον (Horológion, Book of Hours).

The Midnight Office is a particularly Orthodox monastic practice, which arose as a response to the words of the Psalm:

At midnight I rise to praise you,
Because of your righteous ordinances – Psalm 119: 62.

There are also private prayers that are said by monastics and by some laypersons. These include Morning and Evening Prayers said privately in one’s room, canons to be prayed in preparation for receiving the Eucharist, and devotional akathist hymns and canons made up of petitions to God.

The Jesus Prayer

An icon of Christ in an antique shop in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart by some Church Fathers, is one of the best known spiritual gifts from the monastic tradition of prayer within Orthodoxy. It is simple: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner”).

This short, simple prayer has been widely used and taught throughout history. For the Orthodox, it is one of the most profound and mystical prayers. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. The theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), and its practice is an integral part of Hesychasm, the subject of the Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer compiled in the late 18th century that has become a key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer.

An icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, from the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai

The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates from at least the 5th century. It is first referred to in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), is described by Saint John Cassian (360-435), a Desert Father from Egypt who had a strong influence on Saint Benedict, and is recommended by Saint John Klimakos (523-603), a monk of Mount Sinai, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Today, the monastic communities on Mount Athos are at the centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

In its simplicity, the Jesus Prayer is rooted in Scripture, echoing the cry for mercy of the blind man near Jericho (Luke 18: 38), of the ten lepers (Luke 17: 13), of the publican in the Temple (Luke 18: 14), and of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42). Let us listen to a similar theme in The Cry of the Thief Crucified by the Russian composer Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (1877-1944).

Play: The Cry of the Thief Crucified by Chesnokov (Track 13, Authentic Russian Sacred Music).

The Jesus Prayer is a way of taking one of the most important first steps on the spiritual journey: recognising my own sinfulness, my estrangement from both God and the people around me. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which I admit my desperate need of my Saviour. For, as we are reminded in The Book of Common Prayer, “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (I John 1: 8).

The life of an Orthodox Christian is one of prayer ... inside an Orthodox church in Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) was one of the greatest Russian spiritual writers. In his writings, a persistent theme is developing an interior life of continuous prayer, learning to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 17) and fulfilling this desire of the Apostle Paul.

Saint Theophan identifies three levels in saying the Jesus Prayer:

1, It begins as oral prayer, a simple recitation that is prayers’ “verbal expression and shape.” But this level of prayer is still external and only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”

2, As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach the point where we begin to pray without distraction. At this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Jesus Prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.”

3, The third and final level is prayer of the heart. At that stage, prayer is no longer what we do but who we are. It is a return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, which is the purpose of all Christian spirituality; it is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst.

The anonymous Russian author of The Way of the Pilgrim says the Jesus Prayer has two transfiguring effects on his vision of the world:

1, It transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

2, The Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship with other human beings, giving them form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “The invocation of the name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”

Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night in private in their cells. Under the guidance of an Elder (γέροντας, gérontas), the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly, answering that exhortation from Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 17).

When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic. It is prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (κομποσκοίνι, komboskíni), sometimes accompanied by the sign of the cross and even with prostrations.

In the practice of the Jesus Prayer, there is an emphasis on humility, with countless warnings about the disaster that befalls those who use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. There are warnings that seeking after unusual “spiritual” experiences can cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Seeking after “spiritual” experiences can lead to spiritual delusion, where a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, or has hallucinations in which he or she “sees” angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion can be a pleasure in a superficial or egotistical way, but can lead to madness and suicide.

In many texts, it is also said that that the Jesus Prayer must only be prayed by members of the Orthodox Church in good standing.

The influences of monastic prayer on the Anglican tradition:

The chapel in Alton Abbey, Hampshire, one of the Benedictine abbeys in the Church of England

It could be said that Anglican spirituality has its roots in the Benedictine spirituality. Indeed, in recent years, three of the most interesting commentaries of the rule of Saint Benedict have been written by leading Anglican writers: Esther de Waal, a well-known writer and lecturer on theology, spirituality and Church history and the wife of a former Dean of Canterbury; Elizabeth Canham, one of the first women ordained priest in the Episcopal Church (TEC) and who lived for almost six years in a Benedictine monastery; and Canon Andrew Clitherow of the Diocese of Blackburn.

Since The Book of Common Prayer was first published in 1549, the structures for Daily Prayer in the Anglican tradition have drawn on the Benedictine monastic traditions of community prayer:

● Morning Prayer corresponds to Matins and Lauds.
● Prayer during the day (see Common Worship, third volume) conflates the lesser hours of Terce, Sext and None.
● Evening Prayer corresponds to Vespers.
● Night Prayer or Compline.

The traditional structure of Matins and Evensong in most Anglican prayer books reflects the intention of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to return to the office’s older roots and to make this the daily prayer of parish churches. He eliminated the lesser hours and conflated the mediaeval offices of Matins and Lauds, incorporating the canticles associated with each: Benedictus and Te Deum. In a similar way, Evening Prayer incorporated both Magnificat from Vespers and Nunc Dimittis from Compline.

One canticle introduced in the 19th century to the Anglican tradition from the Greek monastic tradition is the ancient Greek lamp-lighting hymn from Vespers, Φῶς Ἱλαρόν (Phos Hilaron, Hail Gladdening Light). It is the earliest known Christian hymn recorded outside of the Bible:

Φῶς ἱλαρὸν ἁγίας δόξης ἀθανάτου Πατρός,
οὐρανίου, ἁγίου, μάκαρος, Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,
ἐλθόντες ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλίου δύσιν, ἰδόντες φῶς ἑσπερινόν,
ὑμνοῦμεν Πατέρα, Υἱόν, καὶ ἅγιον Πνεῦμα, Θεόν.
Ἄξιόν σε ἐν πᾶσι καιροῖς ὑμνεῖσθαι φωναῖς αἰσίαις,
Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ζωὴν ὁ διδούς διὸ ὁ κόσμος σὲ δοξάζει.

Cranmer also restored the daily reading or singing of psalms, so that every edition of The Book of Common Prayer includes the complete psalter, often with a system for reading through all 150 psalms over a month.

The daily offices have an important place in Anglican spirituality, so that Matins and Evensong have been the best-known examples of the Church at prayer.

Most Anglican monastic communities use a Daily Office based on The Book of Common Prayer but with additional antiphons and devotions.

They include:

Celebrating Common Prayer, published by the Society of Saint Francis, which has widespread appeal among Anglicans.
A Monastic Breviary, published by the Order of the Holy Cross and the Order of Saint Helena (Wilton: Morehouse-Barlow, 1976).
● The St Helena Breviary, published by the Order of St Helena (New York: Church Publishing, 2006).

The canons of the Church of England and some other Anglican provinces – but not the Church of Ireland – require clergy to read Morning and Evening Prayer daily, either in public worship or privately.

Canon C.24 says: “Every priest having a cure of souls shall provide that, in the absence of reasonable hindrance, Morning and Evening Prayer daily and on appointed days the Litany shall be said in the church, or one of the churches, of which he is the minister.”

Canon C.26 says: “Every clerk in Holy Orders is under obligation, not being let (prevented) by sickness or some other urgent cause, to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer …”

In other Anglican provinces, the Daily Office is not a canonical obligation but it is strongly encouraged.

Closing remarks:

The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me. – Sister Joan Chittister

The implications of the monastic tradition of prayer for contemporary spirituality can be summarised as follows:

1, Prayer must be scriptural, not simply personal. I am to converse with God in the Word daily – not simply attended to at times of emotional spasm – until little by little the Gospel begins to work in me.

2, I need to set aside and keep time for prayer. It may be before breakfast in the morning; after the children go to school; in the car on the way to work; on the bus coming home; at night before going to bed. But I need to set that time aside that time for prayer and to keep it.

3, Reflection on the Scriptures is basic to growth in prayer and to personal growth. Prayer is a process of coming to be something new, and is never simply a series of exercises.

4, Understanding is essential to the act of prayer. Formulas are not enough.

5, Changes in attitudes and behaviours are a direct outcome of prayer. Anything else amounts to something more like therapeutic massage than confrontation with God.

6, A sense of community is both foundational for and the culmination of prayer. I pray to become a better human being, not to become better at praying.

Evágrios Pontikós (345-399), an early monk in the Western Desert in Egypt, writes: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

To pray truly and to pray ceaselessly we can draw on the rich treasures in monastic traditions, both east and West, without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality.

But remember too, as Georges Florovsky writes: “Personal prayer is only possible in the context of the community. Even in solitude, ‘in the chamber,’ a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.”

Prayer in the monastic tradition can be described as relaxing into the realisation that God loves you. This is what prayer is all about. It is relaxing, not straining or making myself tense by my mental efforts to say prayers or to be recollected. Once we realise that God loves us with a personal and infinite love and is seeking us in all the circumstances and events of our daily life, then we shall be content to allow God to love us to his heart’s content.

Prayer for Christians can be as simple and as far-reaching as that.

Additional reading:

The Rule of Saint Benedict.

Patrick Barry, Richard Yeo, Kathleen Norris, et al, Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St Benedict for everyday life (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005).
Elizabeth Canham, Heart Wisdom: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Guildford: Eagle Publishing, 2001).
Joan D. Chittister, Benedictine Prayer: a larger vision of life: living the rule of Saint Benedict today (San Francisco and New York: Harper, 1991).
Andrew Clitherow, Desire, Love and the Rule of St Benedict (London: SPCK, 2008).
Esther de Waal, Seeking God, The Way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1984).
Mary Forman OSB, ‘Prayer,’ in Patrick Barry et al.
Columban Heaney, According to the Monastic Tradition (Nunraw Abbey, Haddington).
Basil Hume, Searching for God.
Abbot Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everyday life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006).
Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998).
(Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware (Timothy Ware), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997, new ed)
(Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

Some links:

Alton Abbey: : http://www.altonabbey.org.uk/
Burford Priory: http://www.burfordosb.org.uk/
Glenstal Abbey: http://www.glenstal.org/index.htm
Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor: http://www.benedictinemonks.co.uk/index.asp
Mucknell Abbey: http://www.altonabbey.org.uk/
Worth Abbey: http://www.worthabbey.net/

For more information on the TV series The Monastery: http://www.worthabbey.net/bbc

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This essay is a fuller version of a lecture in the Crypt of Christ Church Cathedral on 6 December 2011 as part of the programme ‘TheCrypt@ChristChurch’.

Last updated: 11 July 2012.

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